Bright colors, silly jokes:
A moment from “H. R. Pufnstuf,” one of the Sid and Marty Krofft series
being shown on TV Land.


The Evil Geniuses of Kiddie


February 15, 2004 Sunday
New York Times

Have you ever thought you
liked a terrible song just because you remembered it, mistaking mere recollection
for actual nostalgia? That’s the way it is for me and “H. R. Pufnstuf.”
I thought I had fond memories of the show until I had a chance to see it
again, to hear the shrieks of an angry Witchie-Poo (the actress Billie
Hayes in a ketchup-red wig), to be assaulted by swirling Day-Glo colors
and a Freudian plot featuring a talking flute. Turns out that when I was
7, I had really, really bad taste.

again, maybe that’s the glory of being 7 years old: there are no clichés,
and the crassest riddles rock your world. The brighter the colors, the
better the set design. This was the evil genius of Sid and Marty Krofft
˜ the Canadian-born 70’s TV hucksters whose invariably short-lived Saturday
morning series included “H. R. Pufnstuf,” “The Bugaloos,” “Electra Woman
and Dyna Girl,” “Sigmund and the Sea Monsters,” “Land of the Lost” and
deeply strange “Lidsville.”
They weren’t making shows that parents
could watch with their kids. They were making shows that kids could watch
alone, while severely addled by Cap’n Crunch. In another league entirely
from the witty Muppetry of “Sesame Street” or the gentle pleasures of Mr.
Rogers and “The Magic Garden,” the Kroffts dished up a swirl of psychedelia,
vaudeville and cheesy production values that might be described as brown
acid for the toddler soul.

    A marathon
of the Krofft series runs this Tuesday, from 8 to 11:30 p.m. on TV Land,
culminating in a variety show featuring the Brady Bunch performing “Proud
Mary.” And if the marathon won’t win any awards for educational value,
it reaffirms that the Kroffts were to children’s television what Joe Eszterhas
is to the erotic thriller: schlock auteurs with a vision. To an adult,
the Krofft jokes might seem fairly idiotic, like an endless comic routine
featuring an owl asking, “Who?” (Or foolishly offensive, like an Indian
tree saying, “They not call me redwood for nothing!”) The plots made little
sense, and just when things seemed to have reached their lowest ebb, a
character would burst out into a song like “Oranges Poranges.” 

   But there was
some sort of guiding Krofft aesthetic ˜ a bonk-on-the-nose entertainment
value. Most often, there was a grossly cute monster, created by propping
a puppet head on an actor: H. R. Pufnstuf; the one-toothed, googly-eyed
Sigmund; or Chaka in “Land of the Lost.” There was a crush-inducing child
hero, like Johnny Whitaker in “Sigmund,” Jack Wilde in “Pufnstuf” or the
adorable Kathy Coleman of “Land of the Lost.” There was a scary shrieking
villain ˜ frequently a Phyllis Diller-like mean old lady vamping around
and stomping her feet. Most Krofft shows centered on an alternate universe
like Lidsville, Living Island, Tranquility Forest or the prehistoric wormhole
in “Land of the Lost.”

people left their children alone with these shows is either a shameful
indictment of our culture or encouraging evidence of the resilience of
young brains. From an adult perspective, “H. R. Pufnstuf” is the weakest
of the bunch, if only because Pufnstuf himself is so hard to look at, with
his big pumpkin head and creepy giggle. “The Bugaloos”
is a lot more fun, a fantasy of a super-groovy British pop band consisting
of four low-key bugs: Joy, Harmony, Compassion and IQ. The winged Bugaloos
live in Tranquility Forest (“the last of the British colonies”), singing
their truly addictive theme song and battling their nemesis, Benita Bizarre
(Martha Raye). 

   “Sigmund and
the Sea Monsters” had a similar laid-back appeal, with its mellow seaside
surfer ambience. “Electra Woman and Dyna Girl” was a cheesy Batman rip-off
with a feminist undercurrent. And “Lidsville” gets points for sheer
insanity, set as it was in an alternate universe inhabited by talking hats
˜ a typical conceit for these shows, which were filled with imagery that
would be right at home in 60’s drug comic books.

The best of the Krofft series is probably “Land of the Lost,” which had
insanely bad special effects but a premise with genuine fantasy appeal.
A family of three (the mop-topped forest ranger dad, Marshall, his tight-trousered
son Lynn and the young Holly, with her blond braids, overbite and excessive
spunk) are white-water rafting on “a routine expedition” when they’re pulled
into a whirlpool ˜ a vortex into another dimension, one in which Claymation
dinosaurs roam the earth. They are forced to build a new life, with only
their homesteading skills and the companionship of the Wookie-like Chaka.
The villains are Sleestaks: hissing lizard monsters who lurk in caves,
fondling magical glowing crystals. As a child, I found this show terrifically
exciting, despite its slow pace ˜ and frightening as well.

It would be nice to say that the Krofft productions had a rough and anarchic
genius, that they were punk rock to “Sesame Street’s” Beatles. But the
truth is, they were more like “Beatlemania.” Long before “Teletubbies”
and “Boobah,” the Kroffts were happily demonstrating the very thin line
between a child’s innocent imagination and the deepest neurological damage. 

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About Jay Babcock

I am the co-founder and editor of Arthur Magazine (2002-2008, 2012-13) and curator of the three Arthur music festival events (Arthurfest, ArthurBall, and Arthur Nights) (2005-6). Prior to that I was a district office staffer for Congressman Henry A. Waxman, a DJ at Silver Lake pirate radio station KBLT, a copy editor at Larry Flynt Publications, an editor at Mean magazine, and a freelance journalist contributing work to LAWeekly, Mojo, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Vibe, Rap Pages, Grand Royal and many other print and online outlets. An extended piece I wrote on Fela Kuti was selected for the Da Capo Best Music Writing 2000 anthology. In 2006, I was one of five Angelenos listed in the Music section of Los Angeles Magazine's annual "Power" issue. In 2007-8, I produced a blog called "Nature Trumps," about the L.A. River. Today, I live a peaceful life in Tucson, Arizona with Stephanie Smith. https://linktr.ee/jaywbabcock